Wanna Stay Alive in the Backcountry? Here’s How

A veteran patroller’s strategies will keep you safe and might just make your skiing more meaningful.


Long walks in the woods, the echo in a secluded basin, untracked powder snow…the allure of backcountry skiing is powerful thing. For Telluride local Erik “Deuce” Larsen, exploring the precipitous steeps in the San Juan Mountains is not just a hobby, it’s an integral part of his identity. One year out of college, Larsen drove into Telluride and was immediately captivated by the mountains and the town. Twenty-three years later, the 47-year-old is a veteran ski patroller and a member of Telluride’s snow safety department. He’s in charge of weather and avalanche forecasting, explosives, hazard mitigation, patrol safety, opening terrain—suffice it to say, he knows his stuff. But for Larsen, knowledge and experience have led him to realize an important fact about success in the backcountry: the skiing isn’t that important.

We drilled him on strategies to stay safe out there.

Who makes a good partner?
For me personally, it’s someone who is genuinely interested in being outside and communing with nature. Someone who can be in the moment and enjoy the awesome opportunity you have to be out in the environment that many people never have the chance to enjoy. Generally speaking, women more than men understand how delicate life is and how to be in the moment. They make better partners. It’s just more fun. They get how to enjoy the adventure.

You need someone who is on the same wavelength as you for the given day. Make sure you’ve chosen the correct partner for the day and that you’re both on the same page for what your objective is. And that runs the whole gamut, from whether you’re looking to put in the bad rad line or whether you’re looking to make cocktail turns. Having an understanding, between yourself and your partner, of what you are looking to ultimately accomplish sets you up for success.

What’s the most important piece of gear and knowledge?
Well, I am going to go beyond the basic avalanche gear of shovel, beacon, probe. If anybody wants to know what one of those pieces are, they’re way behind the bell curve of knowledge. Those are just assumed.

The most important piece of gear is your picnic kit. Seriously. Make sure you’ve got a good lunch on board. Put a lot of thought into it. It sets the tone for your day. It should have a cutting board, a knife, a couple small wine glasses, a table cloth…the lunch you bring let’s everyone know that the day is not all about skiing. It’s about food, nature, being outside, and being with your friends.

If you show up with your peanut butter sandwich and your gorp, you’re not saturated in the moment. Food and friends and nature, they’re all intertwined and they give you a better appreciation for life. In my junior days of climbing the ladder of the Telluride backcountry, I skied a lot and I pushed a lot. I can’t specifically tell you the nuance of those days. But I can vividly remember all of the days I was out with good friends, enjoyed a good lunch, a good summit, and good laughs, and it wasn’t so driven. Those are the memories that stick with you.

When do you say yes and when do you say no?
I always say yes. But I have criteria for what I will ski for a specific day depending on the perceived hazard and the actual hazard. I have a run list in my head for red days, orange days, yellow days, and green days. There’s not any day that I can’t go skiing. I can ski every day, so I say yes every day. But I know where I am going to ski for each type of hazard before I leave the house. I know where I can take a wiggle in the woods. I also know where I can push my limits. Having a run list is important. You’ve got to know your zone, know your hometown.

Where do you ski and where do you not ski?
Well, I don’t ski where it’s shitty and I do ski where it’s good. It’s funny but it’s a real time-honored answer. And it comes from making a lot of mistakes. Over the years, you get to know where the good snow is and where it’s going to suck. You’ve got to pay attention to the weather, wind, sun, aspect, and elevation. And if it’s shitty everywhere, then go do something else.

It’s a good thing to have a mentor when you’re pushing your mental and physical limits because you can defer your naivety. You can learn more and learn quicker, but you also need to learn a lot on your own as well. The goal should be to become a mentor yourself one day. If you stay as a mentee your whole life, you truly aren’t experiencing the craft. At some point, you can’t keep looking to Obi-Wan. You’ve got to be Luke Skywalker. But that doesn’t mean you need to take on the whole Empire at once. You can do graduated steps of your own learning, at your own pace. Start small. You’ve got a lifetime of skiing ahead of you.

How do you have a successful and fun adventure in the backcountry?
Ultimately, it’s to ski with purpose and to ski with meaning. It’s not to ski for happiness. If you ski to be happy, it’s kind of a shallow pursuit. The reason that I am a patroller is not because skiing is fun. I’m a patroller because it gives me purpose and meaning to my life. Happiness comes with that. If you’re doing something in life, anything, just to be happy, in the end your bucket is not going to be very full. At the end of the game, it’s all about having something deeper than surface level. Skiing with a greater understanding will lead to a much more enjoyable experience. Put some thought into it.

I don’t really remember the days that I skied that were just about objectives. What I do remember are the days that had a higher purpose and a higher meaning. The days that I’ve had in the backcountry that are all about being with good friends stick out much more than those objectives I ticked off the list. In the end, that shit really doesn’t matter. It’s all about being outside and the relationships that you build and carry on, the people that are important to you in your life.

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